A Bittersweet Task

November 18, 2010 at 4:09 am (By Amba)

As J lies on what I suppose is his deathbed, or death-and-resurrection bed, slowly getting smaller, more hollow-cheeked and thin-legged, I sit on my futon on the floor beside the hospital bed, reediting a digital file of his story of cheating death as a teenager in Soviet Russia.

Back in the ’90s, our friend Robyn painstakingly retyped the whole book to post on the website that she and her husband Ralph had created for Jacques.  (Ralph had become our future friend as a child, when his father, Warren, operated on Jacques in 1975 — three and a half years after he and I met — discovering a massive staph infection behind his left lung and in two of his vertebrae, which had probably been smoldering in his body ever since a sadistic guard in Russia shot him through the chest, missing his heart by maybe a centimeter.)  When we then republished Donbas in 2000, adding back material that the first crew of editors had cut out and new passages that Jacques had written since — and an epilogue describing his return to the Donbas — Robyn took all but the first three chapters down from the website at our request.

Jacques’ lifelong dream, which he had hoped from Day One I would help with, was to see his book read in schools and made into a movie.  It was all he had salvaged from that experience (well, okay, a Russian soul — no small thing), and in many ways his sense of his own worth balanced on the razor edge of the book’s acceptance.  Everybody who loves him is aware that Jacques has a bedrock foundation of natural confidence we can hardly imagine and are drawn to by an unfamiliar but gravitational force; most are less aware (some more than others) that, as with most trauma survivors, it is overlaid by (like one of those black strata in the earth that memorializes a mass extinction) a layer of ash and shame.  I am reading his unflinching account of how filth-encrusted and pus-befouled he was when he escaped from the Soviets’ clutches on legs rotting with gangrene.  People in British- and American-occupied Germany moved away from him in train stations; one or two even spat on him.  Nothing that happened to him as a prisoner in Russia — where he had at least been valued for his strength, and even loved — had wounded him as deeply as his rejection by (barely) respectable people when he washed up like a piece of flotsam on the edge of the West, and especially his rejection from an American military hospital (a simple act of triage; they thought he was irreversibly close to death, a mistake that is still being made more than six decades later).  That rejection was so devastating that he lied about it in the first edition of the book, and wrote instead the fantasy that he was taken in and cherished there.

Are you beginning to see why I couldn’t put this guy in a nursing home?

For various reasons too complicated to go into here (the simplest of which is that it’s just so goddamn difficult), I failed to devote myself sufficiently single-mindedly to getting Donbas made into a movie.  In 2001, though, I did write an article about J and me for O, the Oprah Magazine (the article will soon be permanently archived on the magazine’s website).  Around the same time, he had been contacted by a middle-school student in Oregon who’d loved the book and wanted a new one as a retirement present for his teacher, whose copy was falling apart because he’d taught it for 25 years.  It looked as if J’s dream might finally be gathering itself to come true (just as he was beginning to get ill), but then the magazine hit the newsstands, literally, on September 10, 2001.

Decades ago, a gay editor who had a crush on J had published the book in paperback with a rather homoerotic, bare-chested cover illustration and the wince-worthy title A Man Never Dies.  (“A man always dies, sooner or later,” I pronounced in my infinite thirtysomething wisdom.  Oh, yeah?)  Well, be that as it may, a book never dies.  Or this one doesn’t.  It keeps clawing its way out of the grave.  Freeman Hunt, a blogfriend from the Althouse community, ordered it from the link on my blog.  She gave it to her husband, David, who is a filmmaker.  He fell in love with it, as certain people, over time, inexorably continue to do.  And now it’s 2010, and I’m sitting here reediting the digital file that Robyn never trashed because David and his business partner plan to produce a school edition AND a movie.  Is J aware of this?  Intermittently.  Will he live to see it?  It would be a mistake to rule anything out with him, obviously, but probably not.  Does it matter?  The part of him he wanted most to live will live.

I noticed recently that J’s hands, which he described as having been so hardened by mine work and mineralized by coal dust that you could break a razor blade on his palm, are now much softer than mine.  I also thought about how his being on hospice for a year is some kind of strange restitution for his rejection from that American Army hospital in postwar Germany so long ago.  He’s having his umpteenth rematch with death — he’s won them all till now — but this time, he has a corner.

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Best Day Yet

November 16, 2010 at 6:35 pm (By Amba)

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6,000 Ton Giant

November 15, 2010 at 4:07 pm (By Randy)

Meet Pando, The Trembling Giant, said to be 80,000 years old.

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Entitlement Spending

November 15, 2010 at 4:00 pm (By Randy)

According to USA Today:

Federal Employees earning over $150,000/years:

  • 2005:   7,420
  • 2010: 82,034

Since 2000, federal pay and benefits have increased 3% annually above inflation compared with 0.8% for private workers, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Here’s another USA Today article detailing how federal workers are now earning twice what the privately employed earn.

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Cavity Search

November 15, 2010 at 3:55 pm (By Randy)

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Balance the Budget

November 14, 2010 at 11:07 am (By Randy)

Here’s a mildly entertaining way to while away your Sunday, courtesy of the New York Times:

Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget

Today, you’re in charge of the nation’s finances. Some of your options have more short-term savings and some have more long-term savings. When you have closed the budget gaps for both 2015 and 2030, you are done.

I disagree with the last sentence above as someone sometime has to begin reducing our national debt. Anyway, I came up with $893 billion in savings and tax increases for 2015 and $2,765 billion for 2030. Doesn’t have a hope in Hell of happening, and my draconian calcs reflect my mood at the moment (and may not be an accurate representation of my opinion 15 minutes from now).

Why not try your hand at it?

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Zombies, Part 2: the Philosophical Undead

November 14, 2010 at 1:26 am (By Theo Boehm)

As a former musician, I’ve played in and heard quite a few concerts that could only be described as nights of the living dead. Most musical people have had this happen. I’ve been searching for something more on undead in music ever since, but it looks like the current fascination with Zombies has taken other turns.

But I still don’t have an answer to the social question of just what is it with Zombies lately?  And I don’t mean the LA Philharmonic. I’m wondering why all the pop culture Zombies, not to mention their appearance in otherwise serious philosophy and psychology?

Philosophical Zombies?

Not this guy, exactly. But from reports of his female students, close enough.

No, as I mentioned in the last post, I had my curiosity piqued the other day when I came across a survey of philosophers and students of philosophy on attitudes toward some of the basic, perennial questions. This was done by philpapers, a site for “online research in philosophy,” as it’s titled. The homepage of the survey is here.

In any event, the following question appeared at the end of the survey:

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

  • Accept or lean toward: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 331 / 931 (35.5%)
  • Other 234 / 931 (25.1%)
  • Accept or lean toward: metaphysically possible 217 / 931 (23.3%)
  • Accept or lean toward: inconceivable 149 / 931 (16%)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

This is a question in a respectable academic survey?

It seems so.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has the following:

Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness. This disconcerting fantasy helps to make the problem of phenomenal consciousness vivid, especially as a problem for physicalism.

Few people think zombies actually exist. But many hold they are at least conceivable, and some that they are ‘logically’ or ‘metaphysically’ possible. It is argued that if zombies are so much as a bare possibility, then physicalism is false and some kind of dualism must be accepted. For many philosophers that is the chief importance of the zombie idea. But the idea is also of interest for its presuppositions about the nature of consciousness and how the physical and the phenomenal are related. Use of the zombie idea against physicalism also raises more general questions about relations between imaginability, conceivability, and possibility. Finally, zombies raise epistemological difficulties: they reinstate the ‘other minds’ problem.

Wow. I had no idea. It looks like philosophy of the mind has made something of a comeback, modern philosophers having realized that devising logical ways to stop the asking of hard questions, or proving in a really deep way that 1+1=2 are at a dead end, so to speak. Neither Ludwig Wittgenstein nor Lord Russell have been seen wandering in from the graveyard lately, but at least Wittgenstein had a bit of practice looking the part before he actually took up residence there.

Sartre, despite his philosophical and literary protestations, was, from all reports, a fairly good candidate for undead status himself.  He seems to have been more concerned with the effects than the cause of consciousness and/or mind.  And I’m not going to say anything about his personal life, which, if I did, would be the biggest clue about his having fooled everybody into thinking he was alive.   Further, as a matter of taste, I much prefer Zombies to rocks if we have to pick models for nobody being home.

The question remains, however, not when or if philosophers became Zombies, but when did Zombies become philosophical? It seems their earliest mention in the literature was in Robert Kirk’s “Zombies vs. Materialists” in Mind in 1974. It figures. It was the 70’s. After that, philosophers began to use the example of Zombies in the 90’s, and there have been dozens of papers since, not to mention things like a Symposium on “Conversations with zombies” in 1995.

One of the leading lights of current philosophical Zombiedom is David Chalmers, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University. He’s a charming guy and a terrific writer. He has written the best general introduction to philosophical Zombies on the web. He also provides plenty of links, although many are getting tattered lately. One of the best is this amusing summary of Zombie-based papers back in the ’90’s.

I could go on, quoting and rehearsing various positions taken and conclusions reached, but I think the best introduction to philosophical Zombies is the following cartoon, which pretty much lays it out, and saves me the trouble of writing any more about modern philosophers, not to mention dusty old types such as Descartes and the Buddha, who were known to have a few things to say about this, tedious as they can be when read online.

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Zombies, Part 1

November 13, 2010 at 8:42 pm (By Theo Boehm)

The reference to Zombies in a serious academic survey I noted in this recent post has led me to do more research.  It seems Zombies are really trendy right now, and they are figuring in everything from pop culture to epistemology.

I’m preparing a longer post on the subject, but first, I thought some of you would like this clip from “The Ghost Breakers,” a 1940 comedy starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. It’s interesting that Bob Hope was ahead of his time with the ghostbusting concept, as well as condensing hours and hours of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, et al., into 25 seconds.

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Starry Night

November 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm (By Theo Boehm)

I was poking around the web tonight and came across this van Gogh “starry night” painting on Astronomy Picture of the Day. Here is the full page devoted to this painting on the site.  Neither my wife nor I knew this painting, and she’s the one with a degree (among others) in Art History. Everyone is familiar with van Gogh’s other, more famous Starry Night. But his view of gaslit Arles reflected on the Rhône under a starlit sky is breathtaking.

When I first saw it, I tried to resist falling into an art trance. Remaining objective is impossible.  Every brush stroke is inevitable, perfect and transcendent. The best van Gogh always has me choking back tears, and I don’t quite know why, except that his soul seems to be bared in every daub on the canvas. Van Gogh pulls at my heart like no other artist, and I suppose I had to say something about it, if for no other reason than to break the ice after too long away from my own neglected blog.

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Remember Them

November 11, 2010 at 12:47 am (By Randy)

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